Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Revisiting Sacramental Moments: Little Person in Montana Makes the Shot

My students think I am a horrible person; I have them exactly where I want them.

Perhaps you have noticed, it seems as though a positive trend is taking shape in high school athletics. Teams and coaches are including athletes who might not otherwise have a chance to play on a varsity squad in their games; these young men and women have special needs, disabilities, or other conditions. We get a glimpse of their stories because they often go viral and more often than not, I am glad that they do. But, not always.

At their best, these stories can serve as sacramental moments. We are able to discern that anyone (and in these instances—they are often unlikely people)—can be a visible sign of God's invisible grace. Through these video shorts, we become witnesses to how they uplift and transform a community; that is what sacraments do!

Nowhere was this more true than at Coronado High School in El Paso, Texas. Thanks to Steve Hartman's "On The Road" we learned about Mitchell, a young man with severe mental disabilities was a manager and super fan of the Thunderbird's boy's basketball team. To honor his love for hoops and the team's love and respect for him, Mitchell's coach put him in the final minutes of a home game. His story took a special turn with unexpected results. Today, millions of people know it and have seen it.
This photo says it all. "Mitchell! Mitchell!"
The Catholic principle of sacramentality suggests that we can find God in all things. I believe sports is an arena where this is possible, but it's not a given.  I watched and read "Little Person Student Coach Gets Start on Senior Night for HS Basketball Team" and wondered "Is a sacramental moment, or not?" According to Kyle Newport of Bleacher Report
Laurel High School (Laurel, Mont.) student coach Seth Kraft, a little person, was the center of attention during a special night on Saturday. Seeing as how it was his last game with the team, he was given a start on Laurel's senior night against Senior High. Kraft was able to leave his mark on the game, as he managed to score a bucket for the Locomotives in the first quarter. Kraft's birthday was on Saturday, so it turned out to be quite the birthday present.
I believe the intention for inclusion is a good one. It's hard not to feel the joy that Kraft exudes when he makes his shot. A big part of me wants this young man to have a moment. I do. But I also want his opponents to "D up" on him. I want him to have to stay on the floor and grit it out like every other player must do. Foul him if necessary. Make him set a screen, force a charge. No clothes line please.
D-up guys! Why the open lane??
This left my students in disbelief. Naturally, they took it to extremes. "What??? You want them to swat his shot?" No, but I do want Seth to be treated like any other high school kid. To continue to give him the ball and make room for the court verges on exploitation. 

They still weren't convinced. I told them about a beloved former student from Our Lady of Prompt Succor in White Castle, LA. Kenny was incredibly intelligent and astute. He was gentle and had a great sense of humor. He also had a debilitating stuttering problem. I was his 7th and 8th grade Language Arts teacher. Reading comprehension and writing were never a challenge for Kenny, but speaking was. Students thought he was quiet and shy, but I knew different. 
Kenny taught me more than he will every know.
Teaching middle school as a new teacher means you hand out detentions daily. Classroom management is a challenge by the minute. In spite of the nightmare, it was my goal to give Kenny a detention. 

At this point, several jaws dropped. "YOUR GOAL WAS TO GIVE HIM A DETENTION?" I guess they had never heard that before. "Overtly, this is  not a noble one, but allow me to explain."  As I begin to do so, they are convinced I'm cruel.

"Just because Kenny was unable to talk freely, didn't mean he wasn't off task. He was a typical 13 and 14 year old boy in the same way every other student of mine was. They're not perfect all the time. They're not entirely focused and on top of things at every moment. They make mistakes and push limits. Kenny did this in the same way that everyone else's just that he did it without words. I wanted him to know I knew that."

Good intention, just doesn't feel right. He ran through this, breaking the paper.
And so, when I watched Seth Kraft's story, I couldn't help but think of Kenny and the principle that underscores my sentiment. I can't speak for Kraft or anyone else profiled in these videos, but my sense is that he wants to be treated like a normal high school kid. So often folks with disabilities and special needs are treated differently because that is needed; but I also believe they crave to be treated like it's the last thing that defines them.

I invite in the sacramental moments...but I also contend that maybe the sacrament is revealed in the doing of what's least expected.  And yes, swatting isn't allowed.

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